Case study: A marketing icon's Facebook journey

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When Aflac decided to expand its horizons by branching into new media, two things were certain. First, it is a solid company with a great corporate icon. That's the good news. Second, it needed a plan to reach the millions of people whose exposure to information increasingly comes through social media and the internet. That was the challenge.

And what a challenge it is. With the Aflac Duck, the company has a marketing rock star that can sit comfortably at both the pop icon table and in the board room. The Duck has personality, verve, and is more than ready to bring his pluckiness to places he has never been before.

There is no debating the effectiveness of the Aflac Duck campaign in traditional media. Surveys show that more than 93 percent of Americans are aware of Aflac. Yet far fewer can tell you that Aflac is a leading provider of guaranteed, renewable insurance in the U.S., that its policies are different from major medical, or that it gives you cash benefits when you're injured or become sick. Aflac's new CMO, Jeff Charney, has made clear his mandate to transform brand identification into brand education by using both new and traditional media.

In terms of social media, Aflac had been relatively absent from the conversation, leaving customers without a venue to tell their stories, and the company without a way to participate in the conversation. There had been ongoing discussions for years about bringing the brand into the social space, but for every supporter, there was an equal number of differing opinions on what to do and how to do it.

Aflac CIO Gerald Shields brought in Josh Bernoff, author of "Groundswell," who reinvigorated the discussion around which venues to utilize, including blogs, RSS, wikis, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.

Facebook emerged as an early match for the Duck, because it was a fast-growing community that had gained traction well beyond a limited audience. Around this time, The Zimmerman Agency came in to pitch a wide variety of campaigns, including print, outdoor, and Facebook. The agency's perspective of the Duck on Facebook brought the idea to life, and the Zimmerman team's grasp on the execution indicated it would be the right partners.

A "duck's-eye view"
The initial production went like many creative productions do: crafting concepts, stories, and guidelines for the brand. There were lots of great ideas and a few stinkers, but on the whole everyone loved the idea of a "duck's eye view" of the world. We soft-launched the Duck's Facebook page a few days before announcing it at a field sales conference, then watched as the fan base took off far beyond our (and Zimmerman's) expectations.

Nearly 120,000 fans joined the Aflac Duck Facebook fan page in the first 12 weeks. In fact, the Aflac Duck's fan page was the No. 1 weekly gainer for pages with less than 1 million users for two weeks following its launch in April, according to the Inside Facebook blog. More importantly, the site receives more interaction per fan than any of the top 10 fan pages on Facebook, including those of pop icons Ashton Kutcher and Miley Cyrus.

Consumer engagement has been genuine, with many Facebook fans sharing micro-testimonials, comments, experiences, and observations about Aflac. The most motivating part for me has been the testimonials coming from customers whose financial futures have been preserved by Aflac's help in hard times. One woman posted that she would have lost her house when she was diagnosed with cancer if it had not been for her Aflac policy.

As every marketer knows, there is no stronger praise than third-party endorsements, and the Duck's fans are truly engaged. The Aflac team works hard to keep things fun, while at the same time reminding consumers that Aflac is a product that can be a wonderful asset to protect one's financial future. The Duck's fans interact with the Duck and one another, all taking part in a fun conversation.

But leaping into unchartered territory is never without risk. Prior to Facebook, the Aflac Duck's vocabulary consisted of a single word -- "Aflac" -- and that strategy had worked in the past. But new media, and Facebook in particular, have presented new platforms for the Duck to express itself. So, does the Aflac Duck hunt and peck, or type with wings?

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